The Final Scene looks at the last few minutes of some of the most well-known movies of the past fifty years. This week, it's James Cameron's 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day'...
For a director primarily known for explosive, over-the-top action movies and major spectacles like 'Titanic', James Cameron is able to nail emotional moments like he's a tearjerker drama. While the obvious example for this is 'Titanic' and its endless series of explosively emotional moments, 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' has just as many - but they're far more subtle.
When Sarah Connor describes the haunted visions of nuclear annihilation, and then immediately follows it up with a nakedly pleading scene, you're completely hooked by Linda Hamilton's performance. When John Connor recoils into himself and cries after his mother admonishes him for coming to save him, you can really feel that moment tug on the heart-strings. However, all this pales in comparison to the ending where the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is lowered into the molten steel by Sarah Connor, because he himself cannot "self-terminate".
In a lot of ways, Cameron was borrowing from 'Old Yeller' with its ending. The T-800 knows that if humanity is to be saved, the final processor and example of the Terminator technology has to be destroyed - and it's him. Throughout the movie, the bond between the T-800 and John is built through small moments peppered throughout. When he explains how to smile, or give a thumbs up, they don't serve any purpose other than to build to this ending.
Again, the T-800 is a killing machine and, as anyone who's seen the first one knows, is perfectly capable of driving his fist through someone's chest in order to kill them. He is completely emotionless, yet both John and we the audience feel a connection and a bond with him because we project that feeling onto him. Sarah Connor describes him as the watchful protector John never had, and it's true. That one shot of him standing guard and the night giving way to the dawn just sums it up.
That's why when John begins to cry, it feels like the emotion is earned because we have that context. More than that, we've seen how the T-800 is fully willing to sacrifice himself for John. The line might feel a bit clunky on paper, but it's a devastating moment. "I know now why you cry, but it's something I can never do." As much we want the T-800 to survive, and to be a friend and guardian to John, he can't. Not because of his programmed mission, but because he can't reach that level of humanity that John will need.
The thumbs up, as it slowly lowers into the molten steel, is perfect. And it's why no sequel after 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' has ever had the same impact, nor should it have continued beyond it. It was the perfect ending. It was earned, it had emotional context, and it had a finality to it that was just right. We didn't need to know anymore because, quite frankly, there was nothing more to know. The threat was over. The audience - and John - built up a connection with that one robot. Who cares if another comes back from the future and looks like a slightly older version of Arnold Schwarzenegger? It's the one that went into the steel that we care about.